When I was in college, one of my classmates had a suggestion for a pleasant way to spend a Saturday evening. The first part was going to Pizzeria Due for one of their pies (I was up for that). The second part was going to see a native Chicago comedian, Shelley Berman at his one man stand up comedy show (I was not up for that).
Several years earlier I was unfamiliar with Mr. Berman, but in a foray in New York into Sam Goody’s I had browsed through the closeout section and encountered the album, “The Best of Shelley Berman” and had purchased it after reading the record jacket. Even though I realized that the jacket contained material that was intended to promote the vinyl it contained, I was curious to hear what it described as Mr. Berman’s “unique” comedy – so I bought it.
If as a child you enjoyed pulling the wings off flies, you probably would find Mr. Berman’s humor enjoyable. The hour that I spent listening to this record was nothing short of torture as I heard this self-deprecating man describe what a loser he was. Rodney Dangerfield, famous for his line that, “He didn’t get no respect” would, by comparison, get a 98% approval rating in contrast.
Well, the economics of the proposed evening, my friend had a free extra ticket to see Mr. Berman, and my desire to enjoy a Due’s pizza overcame my better judgment and so I agreed to go. The hour at the show exactly mirrored my earlier experience with Mr. Berman’s record and I recall fidgeting almost constantly in the seat, hoping that the comic was not feeling well and would cut his routine short. At the least, I hoped there would be some new material that I had not heard on “The Best of …” that would be amusing. Sadly my hopes were dashed.
One of the skits that Mr. Berman shared with us that evening was on the album. It was a purported death bed conversation between Gertrude Stein and her long-term lover Alice B. Toklas as Ms. Stein lay dying.
In the skit, Ms. Toklas is sitting by Stein’s bed. In a voice that is reminiscent of what we have come to expect of a medium at a séance, she says, “Gertrude. Gertrude. What is the answer? What is the answer?” To this, Ms. Stein responds, “What’s the question?”
Whether that story is true or apocryphal, the question of what’s the question transcends Ms. Stein’s life and writings. And it lacks only one addition to make it profound. That addition is, “Who’s asking the questions?”
Eleanor Roosevelt made a profound comment when she said, “Small minds talk about people. Average minds talk about events. Great minds talk about ideas.” If we watch any news show it is apparent that their coverage is intended to appeal to people who, by Mrs. Roosevelt’s definition are either small minded, or at best, average. No example serves to illuminate this point better than the current discussion over both the partial government shut down and the likelihood of butting up against the legally set debt limit.
We’ve all heard the coverage of finger pointing by all parties involved; the use of provocative labels that are being tossed around; the effects of the shutdown in closing national parks and memorials; how certain benefits owing to veterans and their families are being denied. This is far from an inclusive and complete list.
And the question these news gurus are invariably focused on is, “Who’s fault is all of this?” The answer to that question varies, depending on the political leaning of the particular station. Unfortunately, all the answers that they give are both short-sighted and wrong.
The answer to that question of who is at fault is, “Those who voted to cede their personal responsibility in favor of having government run their lives; those who voted people into office who believe in the philosophy that government can always do a better job than the average citizen; those who believe that they have an unalienable right to entitlement and a minimal level of subsistence; those are the people who are at fault for our present debacle.
The “Federalist Papers” are filled with serious debate over what would be the legitimate authority and role of a new Federal government. The authors had different ideas. But that they were great men is implicit in the fact that they had ideas and were not afraid to debate those, sometimes heatedly. And their conclusion, as clearly expressed in our Constitution, was that the powers that they were willing to convey to a new Federal authority were severely limited, no way reflecting the state of affairs under which we live today.
Were they correct in their conclusions?
Well, the America that they constructed became the greatest country in the world, based on the personal effort of millions of citizens who worked for a better life for themselves and their families. We became the most industrialized and productive country ever seen on the planet. We took individual liberty seriously but were not afraid to help out those who were in need or unable to help themselves through individual and collective charity. We became a land to which all who were oppressed throughout the world journeyed because they knew that in America, opportunity was only limited by a person’s initiative. Their vision of America lasted for about one hundred sixty years.
Then came Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. And in the last eighty years, government has grown and entrenched itself further in our lives, reducing the individual’s ability to make it on his own and, more importantly, characterizing individual success, the driving force behind America’s former greatness, as an example of cupidity and greed.
It would be fair to say that if government can demonstrate that it, rather than the individual, is better able to bring about a more efficient and fairer society, then any rational person would certainly support government growth. But it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to see that what the growing Federal government has provided is fraud, waste, lack of direction and the largest national debt in world history.
The real questions that we need to ask are, “If this is what we get from an expansion in our Federal government, what do we need to do to get rid of it and go back to letting the individual be the ‘Captain of his fate and the Master of his soul’? And if you and I are not willing to make the effort to reclaim the America that was given to us by the Founding Fathers, then whom do we think should be responsible for taking up the gauntlet?”